A part of my “diet plan” this time around is to watch reality shows that show obese people triumphing over fat, uttering cliches into the camera, tears and sweat running down their chubby faces as music swells in the background. Why? A mixture of positive and negative reinforcement, watching something like The Biggest Loser reminds me that a) I’m lucky I only have 70 pounds to lose b) yes, Virginia, there are fat people and c) that dropping 150 lbs on a reality show in six months is extremely unhealthy and unrealistic, so go easy on yourself, kiddo.
I’ve always had an inherent issue with The Biggest Loser, and have never made it past the first few episodes of a given season. Two hours each week of fat people sweating and crying is a bit much, and pitting them against each other in a weight loss battle seems a bit cruel. “You didn’t lose enough, go home” doesn’t exactly solve the problem, though NBC does give the ousted contestants personal trainers (they must) until the finale show airs, and we see the “losers” paraded in front of us — “look, they did it at home!!!” Despite the swells of uplifting music and the sob stories, The Biggest Loser is, at heart, all about fat shaming. Fat is Not Okay, you are Unhealthy and Unfit and so you Must Change. Ok, so it’s also TRUE — the contestants are generally unhealthy, unfit and need to change. But the method and the messaging of the journey is such: these people are miserable and unhappy fat. They are going to die. Look! They lost 150 pounds! Now they are Happy and Perfect.
Reality check: losing a ton of weight doesn’t solve all of your problems. Weight loss is not a fix-all. Food issues are forever. And I doubt all these contestants keep their weight off after the show. The Biggest Loser doesn’t focus much on eating habits and food issues; they push the (much needed) fitness angle and while, yes, if you do a lifestyle change and become a work-out nut, you likely won’t become obese again, but how many of the contestants really become fitness nuts? Plus, losing massive amounts of weight each week is NOT HEALTHY or sustainable. While of course the contestants have an abnormally high start weight, 10, 15, 20 pounds in a week is not normal, even for the chronically obese. The only way to achieve such drastic weight loss is to have these people on a starvation diet plus 5-6 hours of working out each day. How can you sustain that post-show? You can’t.
The fat shaming that goes on in the weigh-ins has me yelling at the TV each week. Contestants are shamed about losing 6lbs in a week. Or 4. Or 8. Doctors recommend you lose 1-2 pounds a week for healthy weight loss. But these people are made to feel ashamed of losing what is, for even the heaviest of people, an abnormally high number in a single week, after many progressive weeks of similar or higher weight loss. It’s not sustainable! Frankly, if a contestant who “worked their butt off that week” “only” loses 6 pounds, or 4, or, God forbid, GAINS, I’m thinking their body is telling them something: IT’S THE APOCALYPSE, WE’RE STARVING, HOLD ON TO THE FAT. That’s what your body does when you’re starving — holds on to the fat. However, when this happens on the show, the trainers belittle the contestants (Bob told someone this week “4 pounds is nothing to be proud of.” This same contestant lost 31 POUNDS his first week), and the host speaks to them in a condescending, judgmental tone. It’s awful.
But, yes, I’m watching it. Cynically, though! Now there’s Heavy on A&E, which takes the appeal of The Biggest Loser — seeing morbidly obese people lose weight — and puts a gritty spin on it. There’s no competition, just “reality.” Each week, two people from the same city are profiled. Over six months, they will be buddied together for support, and given the tools to change their life around. They spend the first month at a weight loss camp (fat camp for adults!), the Hilton Head Health Institute, where personal trainers and nutrionalists help them jump-start their journey. Then they head home, where the show provides them with a personal trainer for the remaining five months. If they don’t make progress, they have to go back to Hilton Head.
So far, I’m impressed with Heavy. It’s not just fat people with sob stories. It’s fat people with REAL sob stories, and struggles. Jodi and her husband’s marriage is on the rocks. Her mother (who is also fat) fat shames her and they don’t have a good relationship. Arnold is surrounded by a family who enables him to eat more than 6,000 calories a day, and not work (because he’s so large he can’t). Arnold relapses after he goes home, gaining 23 pounds back, and has to go back to Hilton Head for the rest of the program. Jodi kicks her mom out of the house and she and her husband attend therapy sessions. And at the end of the six months, while both have lost a considerable amount of weight (Jodi 77 lbs, Arnold about 150 lbs), they are both still obese and have significant life issues to tackle. The weight loss and the A&E program haven’t solved their life problems and made them happy. Maybe, once the cameras are off and the personal trainers aren’t free, they will lose the rest of their weight. Or maybe they’ll gain it back. Who knows. My only nitpick on the participants of episode one: neither appears to have a job. When that is the case, it’s a lot easier to dedicate yourself fully to going to “fat camp” and working out with a trainer every day. It will be interesting to see if in future episodes, people have jobs and other such life obstacles.
This is the reality of fat in America, and losing the weight. It’s hard, it’s nuanced, it’s expensive (normal people can’t afford personal trainers or the TIME you need to dedicate to these work out routines) and fixing one thing won’t fix another. Heavy has a leg-up on The Biggest Loser in showing the realistic journey, but unfortunately what NBC does do brilliantly is the big pay-off. I can tell myself a hundred times that The Biggest Loser isn’t healthy or realistic, but it’s still a thrill to see someone go from 400 pounds to 150. The montage rolls and the music swells, and you think to yourself “I want that!” It’s intoxicating as much as it is wrong, but it’s also proving to be a pretty good motivational tool.